Exploring Online Internships Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020-21: Results from a Multi-Site Case Study

WCER Working Paper No. 2021-5

Matthew T. Hora, Changhee Lee, Zi Chen, and Anthony Hernandez


June 2021, 61 pp.

ABSTRACT: Internships and other forms of work-based learning are increasingly viewed as essential experiences for college students. Proponents point out that internships help students develop transferable skills, apply academic knowledge to authentic situations, develop professional networks, and facilitate students’ socialization and entry into the professions. In recent years, online or virtual internships, which can vary according to duration, structure, and activities, have grown in prominence. The COVID-19 pandemic brought considerable interest in these unique types of internships, as many in-person positions were cancelled or shifted online. Yet little empirical research exists on the prevalence, quality, and commitment to equity and access among online internships in the United States, particularly during the pandemic period of 2020 to early 2021. In this multi-site case study, we collected survey and interview data from college students during the pandemic. Our findings focus on three distinct cases: (1) two independent websites that provide online internship networking platforms (OINP) for students seeking online internships and employers seeking student interns (n=183 surveys, n=45 interviews), (2) 11 colleges and universities (n=9,964 surveys), and (3) a single employer-hosted online internship program at TreeHouse Foods Inc, a multi-national firm engaged in manufacturing and distributing private label food and beverage products. In analyzing and interpreting our data, we used the Internship Scorecard framework (Hora et al., 2020) from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions. The framework provides a structured approach to studying internships, as well as insights from research on remote work and digital learning. One of our primary conclusions is that while considerable variation exists within the world of internships writ large, an added layer of complexity exists for online positions with respect to information technology, internet access, work-life boundaries, and challenges associated with online or remote work that many occupations experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. We argue that these additional concerns and factors make online internships—which are unlikely to disappear post-pandemic—a top priority for improvement, equitable access, and quality control in the field of higher education.

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keywords: online internships, COVID-19, experiential learning, higher education, accessibility, digitally mediated learning, work-based learning, careers